Christians and Jews

The daily reports of violence in Iraq these days, including stories of the destruction of Christian owned shops in Basrah, the bombing of churches in Baghdad and the kidnapping and murder of a Chaldean archbishop in Mosul, bring to mind happier times in Iraq when Christians – and Jews – lived in peace and played a significant role in the life of the nation. Over the centuries of Persian and Islamic rule in Mesopotamia, these minority groups had suffered some periods of persecution but more generally had lived in harmony with their neighbors and contributed significantly to the civic, intellectual, and artistic life of the country.

Ezra’s Tomb on the Tigris River
Jewish Pilgrimage Site

The Jews of Iraq could trace their history back 2600 years to the period of the Babylonian captivity, and in the years after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., Mesopotamia - Babylon and Baghdad - thrived as a center of Jewish life and learning. Jews had an important place in the early years of Iraq’s independence. The first Minister of Finance, Sasoon Eskel, was Jewish. Jews were represented in the Iraqi parliament, held significant positions in the bureaucracy and were very active in business and commerce. It has been suggested that Jews at that time considered themselves to be Arabs of Jewish faith rather than a separate people or race. But they also made a unique contribution to the culture of Iraq. Among other things, they provided most of the musicians who performed in the clubs, at Muslim and Christian weddings, and on broadcast programs for the newly established radio stations in the 1930s.

Gertrude Bell has a beautiful description of a reception which the Jewish leaders of Baghdad held for the soon to be appointed King Faisal in 1921. The guests, including Christian and Muslim notables, met in the courtyard of the Grand Rabbi’s official home, with women and children crowding the overlooking balconies. The Torah in its gold case was removed from the ark and taken to the Rabbi, who kissed it, and then to Faisal, who repeated the gesture. After a round of speeches, Faisal was given an opportunity to reply. “There is no meaning in the words Jews, Muslims and Christians in the terminology of patriotism,” he said. “There is simply a country called Iraq, and all are Iraqis. I ask my countrymen the Iraqis to be only Iraqis because we all belong to one stock, the stock of our ancestor Shem; we all belong to that noble race, and there is no distinction between Muslim, Christian and Jew” (note 47).

These were eloquent words, and probably sincere, but political events outside of Iraq began to undermine this harmony. Some Iraqi nationalists in the 1930s, impatient with the continued presence of the British, were influenced by Nazi propaganda and adopted a spirit of anti-Semitism not previously known in Iraq. And although as late as 1947, ten out of nineteen members of the Baghdad Chamber of Commerce were Jewish, the creation of Israel and the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 led directly to the persecution of Iraqi Jews and the unfortunate departure of practically the whole community, numbered at 120,000, by 1951. It was a sad loss for Iraq. It was, quite literally, “the day the music died.”

The Christian communities of Iraq also have ancient roots, some dating back to apostolic times. In the year 2000, Christians made up about 5% of the population of Iraq. The Assyrian Church, sometimes referred to as the Nestorian Church, is perhaps the oldest community, tracing its origins back to the witness of St. Thomas. The Chaldean Catholic Church, a later break-off from the Assyrians, is the largest of Iraq’s Christian communities, found mostly in Baghdad and Mosul. Some smaller groups, such as the Syrian Orthodox or Armenian Apostolic churches, follow the theology and rites of the Greek Orthodox Church. Others, such as the Chaldeans, Melkites and Armenian Catholics are associated with the Church of Rome. Like the Jews, Christians over the centuries have suffered periods of persecution but on the whole have been free to practice their faith and traditions without molestation. In modern times, most Iraqi Christians have sought education and found work in the professions, in commerce and in government service. Like the Jews, Christians were given reserved seats in the Iraqi parliament. They were especially well represented in the legal profession, as lawyers and judges, and in education. The Assyrians were an exception to this rule. They were rural folk in the area of Mosul and the borderlands of Turkey. They, like the Armenians, suffered persecution by the Turks in the early part of the 20th century, and fled to Iraq, where, in the 1930s, when they tried, like the Kurds, to establish their own independence, they were crushed or deported again. The head of the church now resides in the United States.

All of these Christian groups were represented in Basrah in 1922 when Dad arrived. The group that the Mission had most contact with, however, were the Protestants, or Evangelicals as they came to be known. The members of this group were not converts from Islam, but rather Christians from the Eastern churches – the Assyrian, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, etc. – who had come under the influence of Congregational and Presbyterian missionaries in Turkey, Persia and northern Mesopotamia in the latter half of the 19th century. The missionaries had not originally planned to establish separate churches but sought to enliven what they thought was the moribund state of these ancient churches. They opened schools and hospitals, and in their own worship services they emphasized biblical teaching and personal devotion in contrast to the liturgical rites of the historic churches. Those Christians who were drawn to this new kind of witness became known as injiliyyeh, the Arabic word for gospel or evangel, hence the term Evangelical. Understandably, the local clergy felt threatened by the appeal of the well funded missionaries, conflicts developed, fissures grew and eventually new Protestant churches were established.

The end of the 19th and early 20th century witnessed that tragedy of history we have come to know as the Armenian Genocide. The violence inflicted on the Armenians and other Christians by the Turks and their Kurdish allies in the area of southeastern Turkey around Mardin and Diyarbekir was witnessed and reported by the American missionaries. Many of the members of the new Protestant churches were caught up in the violence, were massacred with the Armenians, or were fortunate to be able to flee south to Syria and northern Mesopotamia. During and immediately after World War I, when the British had driven the Turkish army out of those areas, many of those refugees made their way to Basrah. In 1922 there were still large refugee camps in and around the city, though many of the educated refugees, especially those who spoke English, had been able to find employment with the British, and others who had managed to bring some wealth with them were able to establish businesses. Though they came from southeastern Turkey, most spoke Arabic as their first language and were able to blend into the population of Iraq fairly easily. The Mission in Basrah was fortunate to be able to hire most of its colporteurs (note 48) and teachers, for both schools, from this group of Evangelical Christians.

If Dad sounds somewhat uncharitable in his description of this community, he was only reflecting the attitude of his senior colleagues, John Van Ess and James Moerdyk. From the vantage of time, it may seem to us that the missionaries were insensitive to the particular circumstances of these people. The problem, from their point of view, was first that these Christians were overly dependent on the missionaries and would not take responsibility for themselves, and second that they did not behave as Christians should and were no help, perhaps even a hindrance, in the missionaries’ efforts to reach out to Muslims. But the Christians were only recent refugees from the violence of Turkey and were probably hungry for the security that the American missionaries could provide. Furthermore, their culture of dependence was born of their experience in Turkey, where the missionaries had provided them with schools, hospitals and churches, and where they, not the Muslims, were the primary recipients of the missionaries’ attention.

These Christians were probably no better or worse than Christians anywhere, but the missionaries held them to a higher standard. Dad reports on their constant quarreling, but he should have remembered that the good Christians of Pella had been fighting among themselves and separating into factions ever since their arrival from Holland with Domine Scholte. The missionaries were not happy when several members of the congregation were found to be dealing in alcohol, but there were not many business opportunities for the refugees and these men had found a lucrative niche in a land where many Muslims were happy to consume alcohol even if they could not sell it themselves. The missionaries felt their behavior undermined the moral reputation of the faith they were trying to promote.

The missionaries’ strongest disappointment with the Christians was that, with a few exceptions, they had no interest in the conversion of Muslims and did not welcome converts into their midst. But Christians in general had survived in the Muslim world precisely because they had kept a low profile and had not posed a threat to Islam. And these particular Christians had just suffered persecution in Turkey because they had not seemed to be sufficiently Turkish. They were not prepared to risk their new security by appearing to be insufficiently Arab, by promoting their Christian faith as somehow superior to Islam. The British had had written into their treaty with Iraqi a provision protecting missionaries and their activities. The refugee Christians had no such protection.

But these Evangelical Christians did seek out and attend services in the small chapel on the mission compound, participated in special meetings, and sent their children to the mission schools. How surprised they must have been when Jim Moerdyk asked to meet and examine them individually and then denied the sacrament of communion to some who did not pass his test. Imagine their anger. If they were not Christian, what were they? And if Christian, how could they be denied the rites of their faith? And so a tension existed between the American missionaries and the local Protestant Christians.

In the long run, things worked out well for both groups, at least until recently. Encouraged by the missionaries, members of the Protestant community took on more responsibilities and organized themselves into an independent church. The missionaries attended that church and participated in its activities, but never voted or held office. Under the leadership of a wise and fatherly pastor, the Usquf Gharabet Abd el Ahad, a former teacher in the Basrah school, educated in Lebanon but of the same background as the members, they eventually constructed a church building of their own, and over the years developed into a strong, self-reliant community. The fact that it had no formal ties to the American mission meant that it survived when the Government of Iraq seized mission property and expelled the missionaries in 1969. Ironically, Christians, including members of the Evangelical Church in Basrah, were protected under the rule of Saddam Hussein and have only been persecuted in the period of chaos following his overthrow. The church survives today, but many of its members have had to leave the country.

Mission Chapel, Basrah

Letters   April 21 – July 21, 1924

April 21, 1924

We had a very nice Easter this weekend. In the first place, Dr. and Mrs. Zwemer arrived here on Friday morning and were here until late last night. He has been holding a series of missionary conferences the last month in Egypt, Smyrna, Athens, Beirut and Jerusalem, and now he is on his way to India where he will hold conferences for three months all over India. He stopped at Baghdad for a small conference with some of the Persia, Baghdad and Mosul missionaries and now he was here waiting for a boat to India. Although we didn’t have any formal conference here, still we conferred a good deal – especially with the teachers from the Boys and Girls Schools and a couple other times with the whole native congregation. He is a great one for conferences. He is a good one for that kind of thing; he gets things all stirred up and leaves a red hot trail behind him, usually too hot for the comfort of the missionaries who are regularly in the place. Some years ago he was in Basrah a couple days and he thot that the missionaries were not doing enough advertising – so he went out and buried the whole town with red hot controversial literature, and of course that set everybody on edge, but as he couldn’t stay any longer, he left again and left it to the missionaries to soothe people down. It was some time before they dared to do even their regular work.

But he didn’t do anything like that this time but confined himself to the native Christians, and then in the evenings all the members of the mission got together and talked and asked questions, because if there is anyone who knows about work with Moslems, it is Zwemer. But we put a couple questions before him that he couldn’t answer. For one we asked him what we could do for our converts and sincere inquirers to give them the sort of Christian home or place where they could feel welcome. We are not given any appropriations for that kind of work. We spend a lot of money trying to make them Christians and then if they are converted we let them go and have no means for following up. Zwemer said we should let them join the native church. Moerdyk and Van Ess told him a few things about this native congregation – how they were a hindrance rather than a help to mission work, that there was no feeling of unity among them, and that they did not give a welcome to the converts but always looked at them with suspicion. Zwemer felt we didn’t have the right attitude toward these Christians. He seemed to think highly of these Eastern Christians and said that mission work should be centered in these churches and go out from there. They didn’t say much more but resolved to let Zwemer see a few things for himself the next day.

Zwemer asked to have a meeting with the church mejlis, a sort of consistory or committee of three appointed by the other members of the congregation. Moerdyk has been trying to help them lately to get organized into a regular church of their own, where they will have to go thru a regular training and pass the committee’s examination before they will be confirmed and presented for church membership. They are not really members now – they come to church and call themselves members but they really aren’t. Well, a mejlis meeting was held but only two showed up. In the afternoon we were invited to tea at the home of one of the congregation. While we were there, one of them made a beautiful flowery speech to Zwemer and he made a nice speech in return. The man who made the speech is the head of a regular gang of gamblers here, and Moerdyk saw to it that Zwemer found out about that. As we left the house, right next to the house was a pool room and salon with the name above the door of the very man with whom we had been to tea. By the end of the day Zwemer began to understand the problem we were facing, but he didn’t offer any suggestions on how to solve it.

Yesterday was Easter and we had some very nice services in spite of the fact that the congregation was made up of saloon keepers and gamblers, etc. Mr. Moerdyk had announced a couple weeks ago that all who wanted to partake of communion on Easter Sunday had to hand in their names to him. That made most of them stop to think and very few of them dared to hand in their names. Mr. Moerdyk had a good strong talk with a few of those who had handed in their names, and so those who did partake were made to appreciate it more and really got the real meaning of communion. We had a very nice impressive communion service by ourselves in the afternoon. I don’t think I ever had an Easter mean more to me.

This morning we saw Mrs. Firman off. She was able to go on a boat which goes direct from here to Philadelphia loaded with licorice. In Philadelphia the licorice is extracted and used for chewing tobacco, medicine, etc. Mrs. Firman is the only passenger and the trip will take six weeks, but she is a good sailor, likes nothing better but to be on a ship in the middle of the ocean. It was hard on Mrs. Van Ess to see her go.

April 27, 1924

Well, slowly things are beginning to get back to normal again. There is only one more week of Ramadhan. The Jews have just had their Passover feast – nine days of it and one day to rest up. The native Catholics and “Protestani,” as they call themselves, have also had their various Easter feasts, which many celebrate in different ways and at different times. The Armenians, Syrians and Mosulawis, as our crowd is known, all have different dates for Easter. Next week is the end of Ramadhan and there will be three days of “Id” (feast) for Moslems. We are going to close school because nobody comes to school anyway, even the Christians and Jews. From then on we hope to have steady school until the end of the year, around July 10th or 12th.

I’ve got good news for you – at least you didn’t seem to like the idea of my going with Cumberland into Kurdistan. Well, I’m not going. I got a letter from him this week saying that he was being transferred to Meshed, a station in east Persia right on the Afghan border. They have just organized this new United Mission of Mesopotamia (note 49). In the last month, three couples have come thru here for this new mission to be stationed in Baghdad and Mosul. Mr. and Mrs. Cantine, who have just recently returned from furlough, will also work in the new mission in Baghdad. Too bad we have to lose Cumberland from Iraq, because he seemed to be such a good person for work among the mountain Kurds.

I haven’t decided yet what I will do this summer. Most likely I will go with the Van Esses to Hamadan in Persia or go with Mr. Moerdyk to a resort in Lebanon, which would be handy for a trip thru Palestine. I will let you know.

It will be commencement time by the time you get this letter. You will be doing quite a lot of “commencing” over there, with Nina from high school and Nick from college, and Crissy, too. I want to give Nina and Nick my heartiest congratulations, and to Robert, too, for finishing his sophomore year.

May 4, 1924

‘Tis the merry month of May. However, instead of it being the most beautiful month of the year, as you can expect, over here we have to expect broiling hot weather any time now. But in spite of the heat it is nice here, too, with all the flowers, green grass and leaves and all. The flowers that we planted last fall are in bloom now. We have piles of sweet peas, corn flowers, roses, sunflowers and a dozen other kinds of flowers. We’ve been having nice weather so far, too, getting warmer but not too hot yet. We have packed away our woolies and have donned “whites.” Last year at this time street vendors were selling “donderma” – ice cream – for a couple of weeks, but yesterday was the first time I have seen one this year.

Yesterday afternoon we all went over and had a swim. The director of the port had a grand idea and sunk an old barge in the river in a place where the water is five or six feet deep – made some holes in the sides so the river water can flow right thru but no sharks or anything of that kind can get in. He has a roof over it and all kinds of gymnastics apparatus right over the water. He has invited us to make all the use of it we want. We tried it yesterday and it surely was fun. Of course it was too deep for John and Alice, but they jumped right in anyway and kept the rest of us busy “saving” them.

I had one of my characteristic little goes of fever one afternoon this week. I had been feeling as usual during the morning, but at noon I felt a little chill coming on. I immediately doped myself with aspirin and asanofele – that’s something new we use now instead of quinine – it does all that quinine does but with none of the bad effects such as dizziness or buzzing. But the chill kept coming on, so I crept into bed and piled on all the blankets and quilts I could find, and still I felt like an iceberg and had a high fever. I fell asleep and woke up at about four o’clock in a sea of perspiration but feeling fine. I had a cold shower and felt so good that I went and had a game of badminton with Mr. Van Ess and the Jacksons. Generally we have not had any fever to speak of this spring – everybody is healthy.

I’ve been devouring lettuce, radishes, green onions, etc. Cucumbers are in season now. People here eat cucumbers just like apples or some such fruit. Vendors go along the street with baskets full of cucumbers and the people in the streets and shops buy one or two and eat them “out of hand” right there, without salt or vinegar or anything. People have a funny way of eating a good many things like that – like radishes – they eat the leaves of the radish and seem to care more for the leaves than the radish itself. Or lettuce – they have no idea of eating it at the table as we do. It’s mostly a kind of head lettuce with long leaves and they buy it from the vendors on the street and walk along eating it leaf by leaf without any trimmings. I have some fixed up with vinegar at the table sometimes, but oh how I would like to have it once more in the good old way, with sour cream and new potatoes and “speck en vet.”

May 24, 1924

Last Monday night we had a picnic supper, or rather a bellum moonlight supper. I left a teacher in charge of the boarding school and Mr. Moerdyk and Mr. Van Ess skipped away from their callers and inquirers for an evening, and Mrs. Van Ess and the girls had put up a wonderful picnic supper of fried chicken, potato salad and other goodies including chocolate ice cream. It was supposed to be in honor of my birthday, which is tomorrow, but there would be no moonlight then. We left in two bellums at about half past six and went a couple miles up the river. Then we tied the two bellums together and anchored them and had our supper right there on the water. It was beautiful bright moonlight and the river was calm and everything was quiet. It surely was nice. We took up the anchor after we had finished and simply let the bellums float slowly down the river, and we got back home at nine-thirty.

It was nice of Crissy to give you that Easter lily. She always mentions to me the times she is able to drop in on you and also the few visits you have made to her in the dorm, and I want you to know, too, that I appreciate it more than I can tell that you have been so good to her.

I put up a volley ball court for the boys this week. But it is awfully hard to get them to play any game like that properly. They have no idea of playing according to rule or order or system. They haven’t the slightest idea of team work. Soccer is about their limit, which amounts to very little more than kicking the ball around, if you don’t want a more organized game. They are great individualists and think they can do the whole thing themselves. In volley ball they have no idea of staying in their places but run all over the court, naturally getting in everybody else’s way, leaving their own place vacant, and of course the whole play is bungled up. Then they start cussing each other for being such boneheads, and meanwhile the other side keeps on playing and sends the ball across the net and it hits somebody in the face and they start cussing each other again. And that’s the way it goes. You can imagine what a picnic I have trying to referee such a game, keeping track of two dozen boys – twelve on a side. Rules are nothing to them – all they want is action as long as it is going their way. We’ve tried basketball with the same result. I wish I had more time. I’d start some more work along that line with smaller groups, because that is one thing they need to learn – teamwork and playing strictly according to the rules (note 50).

June 8, 1924

I had a nice time at Zubair this weekend. We have three boys in the boarding school, sons of the shaikh who was governor of Zubair for a long time. They belong to one of the best families around here. These boys invited Mr. Moerdyk, Mu’allam Jabbar – one of our teachers – and me to come and spend the night with them some weekend, so we went on Friday. I always like Zubair – it’s hot during the day but dry, so the heat isn’t uncomfortable. There is no fever or anything of the sort because there are no mosquitoes. Then it is a pure Arab town, mostly Beduin – desert people – not mixed with European civilization like Basrah or Baghdad, which are neither Arab nor European. You can’t help but admire these desert people. They are rather small but as keen eyed as can be and tough as leather and can stand any of the hardships desert life.

The desert has fascination for me. It makes me think of God in a different way. It almost seems to me that God must have His earthly abode in the desert, it is so large and boundless and there is nothing in it to distract our thoughts from God. Only the people who live continuously in the desert know where to find the water holes, get food, etc., and so only those that live continually with God realize His infinite love and His blessings and the promises that He gives us. Many of the Old Testament people lived in the desert and lived near to God and learned to know Him and His will – Abraham, Moses, and John the Baptist, and even Jesus lived in the desert for forty days – to be tempted, yes – but at the same time He was taught by God and received strength from Him to overcome temptation.

Well, in Zubair we walked about the streets and bazaars a while and then pretty soon it was supper time and we were served with a great big Arab meal – it was very good. After supper, Mr. Moerdyk thot that he had to go home – he said that he had work to do and callers were coming, so at last they let him go. But on the way back he had car trouble so that when he got home it was after ten – too late for callers. Mu’allam Jabbar and I stayed the night and we did it according to true Arab fashion – went to bed with the chickens. By nine o’clock we had all turned in to bed under the open sky. The others were soon asleep, but I lay awake a long time before I slept. Everything was so calm – just a light breeze off the desert. The desert is always cool at night no matter how hot it is during the day. It was quiet – hardly a sound – a great contrast to Basrah with its taxis and cars making a racket all night long and the glare of the lights and noise of native theaters and clubs all over the city and the electric light plant right next door to the mission compound.

Next morning we also got up with the chickens – part of the family was already stirring at three-thirty and we were all up and had breakfast by a little after five. We looked around a little while longer and then started back to Basrah, and we got home before Mr. Moerdyk had had his breakfast.

Last night Mr. Dykstra dropped in on us unexpectedly at about nine o’clock. I was reading in my room when he started hollering at me thru the window. I rigged a bed for him on the roof, and nobody but Moerdyk and I knew he was here until he walked into church this morning. It was nice to have him drop in like that. He came down in the launch. Mrs. Dykstra stayed behind to look after the home base. Kuwait has no electricity, so Kuwait station has just received a Cole lighting system – something like the Delco – for the hospital and mission houses. It was a gift from someone at home, I believe. Dykstra was going down at the end of this week to install it. He came down a little bit early so he could run up to Nasariyah, on the Euphrates near Ur, which is also part of his territory and he has a Bible shop there with a native colporteur in charge.

It is pretty sure now that Mr. Moerdyk and I will go to Syria this summer. We will go to a mission school up in the Lebanon mountains which is used as a sort of hotel or resort. The Cantines and probably the Mylreas will also be there. I’m not going to sit there all summer. I want to get out and see something. If I can I want to hook up with someone and go on a walking or bicycle or horseback trip thru Palestine. They have automobile trips thru Palestine, too, but they only take two or three days and at that pace you don’t see anything. I want to take my time – about two or three weeks. We’ll leave here in the middle of July and be back here the first of October. You can send my mail to this address for five or six weeks – figure about three weeks for transit: Lebanon Boys School, Suq-el-Gharb, Lebanon, Syria.

June 14, 1924

Gosh! I can’t keep up with the times anymore, at least not with the times over there. I have been richer by one aunt for a couple weeks and didn’t know it. You never wrote me the actual date when Bog and Connie would be married. Then too, both Crissy’s and Nick’s recitals were past a couple weeks before I even knew the date they would be given. Then Nick has been flying around the country delivering Fords, and Grandpa and Grandma skipped off to Michigan, and Nina is chasing around to typing contests. I suppose, Nina, that you had your hair bobbed before you went off to the typing contest in Des Moines so you would look more like a stenog. I’ll put the same condition on you having bobbed hair that I put on Crissy – first that you send me a picture and second that you don’t let it grow out again before I get home next year. I suppose commencement exercises are over by now. Congratulations to everybody over there.

Last night we had another moonlight bellum picnic. Mr. Dykstra was back from Nasariyah so he also went with us, and it surely was nice again. The river was beautiful with the moonlight and cool breeze. It was so bright that we didn’t even need a lantern or any light to eat by. I guess this will be the last time we will have anything like this for some time as next week our “family” will begin to break up for the summer. This was the last week of school for the Girls School and Miss Kellien has gone to Amarah to keep Mrs. Dykstra company while he is Kuwait. Then the Van Esses are going to Hamadan, in Persia, for the summer. He has not been well lately and is pretty run down, and it is high time for the children to be getting away. They have been wonderfully well all the time so far, but you can see that the heat has worn them out a good deal. They haven’t had malaria yet, a little fever but no real malaria. This is the latest that Mrs. Van Ess has ever stayed in Basrah with the children. Mr. Moerdyk is taking over Mr. Van Ess’s responsibilities in the school until the end of the year on July 4th.

June 22, 1924

It’s been pretty hot this week – it’s the period between the winds they call the little Barach and the big Barach. First there is the little Barach, which blows for about ten days, and then there is about a week or so of lull – very little wind at all and it can be pretty hot and uncomfortable. Then comes the big Barach with winds that last about a month. Then, too, without the wind now it can be awfully buggy in the evenings. The insects, attracted by the light, get right thru the screen, so it isn’t pleasant to do any writing or reading at night. I’ve been doing a lot of stargazing – going up to the roof early and sitting there for an hour or so before going to sleep. It is always nice up on the roof.

I am sending some interesting pictures which Dykstra gave me. Some are of them touring in the marshes north and west of Basrah. Of course they have to leave their launch behind when they get to these narrow irrigation and drainage ditches, and then they go in these long narrow native boats. The marshes are actually higher and these channels serve as drainage ditches. Then the ditches leave the marshes and go thru a sort of desert area and serve to irrigate that area. They have small dams every now and then to raise the water level so that it runs off by itself onto the land. They have to lift the boats over the dams whenever they come to them. The windmill in a couple of the picture is Mr. Dykstra’s. It was an old one which Bahrain station had discarded – they had used it to pump water for the hospital. Last fall at Annual Meeting at Bahrain, Mr. Dykstra gathered up all the parts of that windmill and brought them along on the ship as personal luggage. You see, personal luggage goes free with the passenger. We’ve always kidded him about carrying a windmill as personal luggage. When he got to Basrah, the customs authorities thot they were going to stick him proper for that windmill. They asked what it was worth – they didn’t know whether it was new or old. Mr. Dykstra said they had tried to sell it in Bahrain for fifteen rupees and nobody would buy it, so they would have to figure the customs charges on something less than fifteen rupees. So they told him to get his windmill out of the way and they didn’t charge him anything. He took it up to Amarah and fixed the thing up again and is using it now to irrigate his and his neighbor’s gardens (note 51).

I have been busy this past week helping the Van Esses to get away. They left Friday and are in Baghdad today. They will reach Hamadan on Wednesday.

June 29, 1924

Tomorrow is the last of June again. Another couple weeks and school will be out and then another year and I will be on my way home. I was glad to get your letter, which was written the last Sunday in May. You had a busy week ahead with commencement exercises beginning and high school graduation to attend. Nick and Crissy will be graduating from college. I hope you got Crissy some flowers as I asked you to do. I got Nina’s graduation announcement and now I am waiting for her picture, with her new bobbed hair, and also the college annual which Crissy said she would send.

I’ve had more guests this weekend. Yesterday morning three young men dropped in – two had been teaching in Robert College, Constantinople, and the other in Beirut. They are on their way home via the Far East. One of them I had met on the Mauritania on the way out. He wrote some time ago to say that he was coming. Nice fellows. They left early this morning by boat for India (note 52).

Mr. Moerdyk has stopped the English service at our church for the summer, since most of those who attend have left, so I have started going to the Church of England service. The Jacksons usually go, too. There isn’t really very much to the C of E service, especially when the padre isn’t more of a preacher than the one they have here, but it is a place of worship and after all worship is not so much what a person does or says but rather what is going on in his heart. This padre is very high church and the way he carries on it becomes almost Catholic with all his candles and crosses and priestly robes. He thinks more of form than of the spirit of worship. When you have a good padre tho, who forgets about high churchism, the English Episcopal service can be very impressive. When Bishop Linten of the Mission in Persia was here, he led the service and certainly made it wonderful. (note 53)

July 5, 1924

Yesterday was the Fourth of July and I suppose you all had a picnic. Well, we celebrated by having school in the morning as usual and then in the afternoon the Jacksons invited us for Fourth of July tea – you see it is still Leap Year – only it wasn’t an English tea but a real American one – a barrel of lemonade, mango ice cream and cake. It surely was good on a hot day, for it really was a broiling hot day. Then after that we went for a swim, that is the girls and I went. Mr. Moerdyk never goes swimming. He is funny that way. He knows that he doesn’t cut the most graceful figure in a bathing suit and he is terribly self conscious. Then, too, he is almost feels miserable in the presence of ladies in a small group at any time, as if he lives in constant fear of being trapped. Perhaps it is because people are always kidding him about his bachelorhood. He is good natured about it, tho, and doesn’t get sore. Since the Van Esses and Miss Kellien went away he said to me he thot we had better not continue our Sunday night mission suppers together, because as we were just two men and two ladies left it might cause a lot of gossip. Who would do the gossiping I don’t know, but anyway the ladies wouldn’t hear of our not coming, so he said perhaps it wouldn’t hurt as we would be here only a few Sundays more anyway. He is funny! But he is a peach of a fellow. He is a born pessimist and is always grumbling, but that is only his way and you soon learn not to take him seriously, and as long as he is grumbles things are still going pretty good. He’s got a heart of gold and when you get to know him well, you couldn’t wish for a better friend. I am glad I am going to Syria with him this summer.

July 12, 1924

Dear “zusje” Nina,

Congratulations on your ___ teenth birthday. You see I don’t dare to put down any definite ages anymore since I made that mistake with Bob’s age last spring. I can’t keep up with the times. Besides, it is not polite to remember a lady’s age and remind her of it. Well, vot you gonna do now? Pas op that you don’t get into any entangling alliances. Maybe there is not so much danger of entanglements now that you’ve had your hair bobbed – still, on the other hand, maybe there is more. I still haven’t gotten pictures of you and Crissy with your abbreviated locks.

Well, school is out here. We didn’t have any contests or recitals or baccalaureate service. Three boys will get diplomas, but as they are all staying around here, we are going to wait until the fall when it is cooler and make a bigger and better program of it.

I have been giving private lessons all winter and spring to a boy who was at school some years ago – a sort of preparation for college. He is starting for America next week where he will enter the University of Pennsylvania. They pay special attention to foreign students there and the Y.M.C.A. has a program for looking after foreign students, so he will get along fine. He is one of the nicest young fellows around here. He is going to study economics and business and expects to come back here. What this country needs is more men who are trained like that, but the trouble with many young men who go to other countries to get their training is that they don’t come back. Well, as I was saying, I have been teaching him and of course I did not charge him, but this morning he sent me a peach of a Persian rug. It’s only a small one – about four by five feet, but its colors are as rich and deep as I have ever seen. It’s the kind that never wears out. Some of these rugs are said to be a hundred years old and are still as good as new. I’ll try to take a couple small ones home with me next year (note 54).

July 20, 1924

The Van Esses wrote that they were having a wonderful time up in Hamadan. The night they arrived there they were served strawberries and cream and cherries were just in season. You also wrote about picking strawberries. It makes my mouth water. We do not have strawberries or cherries or any kind of berries here in Mespot.

We are at the height of watermelon and musk melon season now – and grapes. We have fresh fruit almost the whole year round, and believe me, in this hot weather I eat my share of fruit and not much heavy food – at least as long as there is no cholera or plague around. Then fresh fruit is not safe. But Basrah is a pretty healthy place lately.

The first part of the week was another Moslem feast – the most important feast of the year. It is on the occasion when the sacrifice is made at Mecca during the time of the big hajj or pilgrimage. It lasts three days and people close their shops and leave their work and have a grand spree. Even poor people go into debt in order to be able to celebrate the feast properly.

On Tuesday I went on an all day trip down the river in a launch with a couple of the school boys. We went down the river for a couple hours and stopped with relatives of one of the boys. We sat around generally making ourselves uncomfortable. It was hot but people didn’t keep themselves quiet but kept moving around all the time. After a couple hours we were served a huge dinner – native fashion. A mat on the floor was the table and we sat around the edge of it – there were no forks or spoons or plates. In the center was big dish with a whole roast sheep on it and around that were half a dozen big platters or bowls of rice, five or six roasted chickens, all kinds of vegetables, fresh bread, fresh butter floating around in big bowls of buttermilk on ice and watermelon and grapes, also on ice. Some feed! And that was all for only seven or eight of us. After we had finished, the servants, gardeners, and some others sat down and ate of it, but even when they had finished you could hardly see that we had made any impression on the bowls of rice and meat. But that is their idea of a feast – they have to have mountains of food even if there are only a few to eat it. After such a feast there wasn’t anything we could do but loaf around for a couple more hours. Then we got in the launch again and went to a place further down the river to where a few more of our school boys live, visited with them a little while and then started for home. It wasn’t a bad day. We didn’t do much but eat and talk, but it was pleasant, and the launch ride on the river was nice.

You are certainly dealing with high finances over there, Dad trying to get his income tax back, Nick earning money to pay back his loan for school expenses, Nina trying to earn money for her music lessons, and Robert and Nath (note 55) working on the farm. I wonder what you are going to do with me when I get home next year. In a way I would like to take a full seminary course, but still there is so much in seminary that I will never have much use for and also some things I want that I can’t get at seminary. I hate to think of having to spend three years at it. I would like to go to Hartford Seminary for a year and take special courses. Hartford is a very good school for missions and has one of the best libraries on Mohammedanism. Hartford is like a Mecca for missionaries to Moslems. Many try to go there on furlough. The Bilkerts have been there this last year. The only trouble is that Hartford is so far from home.

Well, het beste, love to all,



[47]Gertrude Bell, Letters, p. 494-495 , and Janet Wallach, Desert Queen, pp. 413-414.

[48]From the beginning the missionaries had depended on native Arabic speaking colporteurs to assist them in selling Bibles and other Christian literature. These unsung heroes of the missionary movement were true partners in the endeavor, often touring or living alone in areas where there were no other Christians and where their lives were sometimes at risk. It is remarkable that they usually found a market for their books, even in this environment.

[49]The United Mission of Mesopotamia was a cooperative venture of the Presbyterian, the German Reformed and the Dutch Reformed Churches. In 1960, Basrah station was also transferred to the renamed United Mission of Iraq, and Dad and Mother were then assigned to the UMI.

[50]The picture above shows not only a volleyball game in progress but the new school building completed in 1923.

[51]The mission property in Amarah was just across the road from the Tigris River. The old windmill was still operating twenty-five years later. Picture on page 183.

[52]Dad had had several other visitors that spring, young men making their way around the world. It was common for the Mission to take in travelers, given the quality of the local hotels, and Dad usually took care of the single men who came through. He seems to have appreciated these particular visitors. He found that the others either expressed no interest in the places they were visiting, including Basrah, or seemed already to “know it all” and had no appreciation of the work and experience of the missionaries, even though at least one of them was planning to write a book about his travels. Dad held forth at great length on the shortcomings of these visitors and why it was still necessary for the Mission to offer them hospitality. I have not included those letters in this collection.

[53]It should be noted that in later years Dad began to appreciate the Anglican liturgy more and often led the service at St. Peter’s Church when there was no regular padre.

[54]Ali Fuad did return to Basrah after completing his education in the U.S. and found employment in the Basrah Port administration. Dad gave the rug to his mother. It came back to him after she died. It now resides with Jim and Jean Gosselink. Indeed it may indeed never wear out.

[55]In his letter of February 10, 1924, Dad made reference to his parents’ plan to adopt an Indian boy, but no details were offered. Then some time later the name Nathaniel began to show up in the letters, with no further explanation, as though he were a member of the family. One on occasion Dad commented on the watch fob that Nathaniel had sent. I suspect Nathaniel, sometimes called Tebo, was the Indian boy, probably from the Reformed Church mission in New Mexico.

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